Save The Swordfish

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Remember a few years ago when you suddenly couldn't eat a tuna-fish sandwich without a pang of guilt--unless the tuna can bore a seal promising that no dolphins had inadvertently been harmed when the fish was caught? Soon there will be a new faux pas du jour: eating the endangered swordfish. If environmentalists have their way, most restaurants will take the delicacy off their menu, and those that don't will lose customers in the wake of a great swordfish boycott.

During 1998, proclaimed the International Year of the Ocean by the United Nations, conservation groups hope to make the swordfish a symbol for all marine creatures threatened by overfishing. So, welcome to the "Give the Swordfish a Break" campaign, to be kicked off this week with a well-publicized swordfishless feast at Felidia, a tony New York City restaurant.

The initiative arose from an unusual alliance between two environmental organizations, the Natural Resources Defense Council and SeaWeb, and some of the nation's finest chefs, led by Nora Pouillon, owner of the Nora and Asia Nora restaurants in Washington. At least 25 chefs of top-rated eateries along the Atlantic Seaboard from Maine to Texas have pledged not to serve swordfish this year, and some will print information about the campaign on menus. That way diners will learn that swordfish populations are under pressure everywhere and severely depleted in the Atlantic. "As chefs, we are high-profile people," says Robert Taylor of Hamilton's at the Admiral Fell Inn in Baltimore, Md. "Consumers look at what we serve and take their cues from it." A new menu at New York City's Le Bernardin, says chef and part owner Eric Ripert, "will list swordfish but then say why we no longer serve it."

The swordfish is the victim not only of human tastes but also of modern fishing techniques. Until the middle of this century, swordfish were generally harpooned, and only the largest, usually weighing more than 200 lbs. and sometimes as much as 1,200 lbs., ended up on dinner plates. Those specimens were easy targets, and boats left smaller swordfish to grow.

In the 1960s, fishermen adopted a more devastating technique called long-lining, which makes catching swordfish cheaper and quicker. Hundreds of baited hooks are attached to a line that stretches dozens of miles and is set horizontally above the continental shelf at a depth where swordfish congregate. Anything that bites usually gets hooked and often suffocates--mainly swordfish but also sharks, sea turtles and other marine species. Most worrisome is that much of the catch consists of small swordfish, averaging 90 lbs. At this size, females have not reached reproductive weight or age. In 1995 an estimated 58% of the Atlantic swordfish catch was of immature fish.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, a 36-nation body that regulates swordfishing as well as tuna fishing, has set quotas for member countries. "But it's too little too late," argues Carl Safina, director of the Living Oceans Program of the National Audubon Society, who favors a return to harpooning. "People are sick of seeing resources crashing. This goes beyond being an environmental problem; it's a public problem."

"Baloney," retorts Putnam Maclean, a director of the BlueWater Association, a membership organization of swordfish boat owners and suppliers. "Telling U.S. consumers not to buy swordfish is hurting the only guys out on the ocean who are adhering to the quotas," says Maclean, who is part owner of four swordfishing boats. He believes that the depletion problem is the result of overfishing by non-American swordfishermen.

Many chefs, however, are not so quick to deny responsibility. Paul Prudhomme of K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans says if he had known swordfish were overfished, "I would have given up serving it. I don't need the money badly enough to ever hurt a species."

Whatever gourmet chefs like Prudhomme do, the swordfish boycott will not be a complete success unless the seafood chain restaurants go along. Red Lobster, the largest seafood chain in North America, says that less than 1% of what it spends on seafood goes for swordfish, but that's a lot, since the company serves 150 million meals a year in its 685 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada. While Red Lobster spokesman Rick Van Warner insists that "we consider ourselves stewards of the environment rather than users," the company has no immediate plans to take swordfish off the menu.

Ultimately, the public will decide the fish's fate. Restoring Atlantic populations to healthy levels could take up to 10 years--a long time to forgo a favorite treat. But if swordfish becomes too scarce to catch, future generations may never taste it at all.